By Justin Sink
President Barack Obama called Texas governor Rick Perry Wednesday night to offer federal assistance with the wildfires ravaging the state. The White House said that the Forest Service and Department of Homeland Security would work closely with state officials to provide firefighting resources.
Wildfires in the states have destroyed nearly 35,000 acres and 1,500 homes in central Texas. The blaze is widespread enough that astronauts were able to observe the damage from space.
The move carries political overtones for the president and Perry, who enters tonight's Republican debate as the leading GOP candidate. The topic of emergency federal aid has been a hot button issue in Washington of late, with some leading congressional Republicans - including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R - Va.) - arguing against increases to FEMA's disaster relief budget without corresponding budget cuts. In Texas, the Republican-led legislature substantially cut volunteer firefighting assistance grants last year in a budget-balancing measure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced earlier Wednesday that he would soon move a $6 billion stand-alone disaster relief bill. The measure is aimed at forcing Republicans to choose between holding the line on the federal budget or possibly appearing insensitive to the needs of those affected by recent natural disasters.
“We need to get this relief funding to the American people as quickly as we can and we’re going to do that. I’m going to bring a free-standing bill and we’re going to have a chance to vote on it,” Reid said to reporters Wednesday.
The White House noted that Perry had already requested and was rewarded eight Fire Management Assistance Grants to help with firefighting efforts in Texas. The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted in May to cut FEMA's firefighting grant budget by $1.5 billion.
But the White House has not always been so generous - in April, the administration denied Perry's request for a federal disaster declaration after fires destroyed 170 homes across the state. That decision was eventually overturned after an appeal by the Texas governor.
In attending the Republican debate Wednesday night in California, Perry faces additional criticism for leaving the state during the disaster. The governor opted out of a candidate forum in South Carolina earlier this week to work on coordinating relief efforts. State Democrats were quick to denounce his attendance at the debate.
"If Perry stayed at home to work on the fires I don't think there would be any room for criticism. But this opens it up for his opponents to hit him on this issue," Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.